HEAD HELD high, Suzan St. James is parading back and forth on the stage, exuding that innate sense of superiority typical of fine Arabian horses. She's singing "Flashdance"--all about dancing for your life, dreaming that "slow glowing dream." The colored lights are spinning and her painted nails are flashing and the beat of the music is vibrating the drinks on the tables.
Several members of the audience are drawn to the edge of the stage, pale moths to a gaudy flame, and they're extending dollar bills, waving them tantalizingly like bait. Without losing the beat, she plucks the bills delicately from their hands--acknowledging the tribute with a chaste kiss or maybe a meaningful squeeze of the hand, before moving on, high and mighty in some stratosphere of her own making. Inexorable, the music pounds on to its conclusion. Finally, clutching a virtual bouquet of bills, she strides down the aisle to a shower of applause and disappears into the dressing room.
As the caption asks: What's wrong with this picture?
Well, for one, Suzan St. James is not really singing. She's lip-syncing to a record whirling away on a turntable in the deejay's booth at the far end of the hall. Nor is she the Susan St. James of television celebrity. If you asked her for an autograph, which some do, you might notice that she spells Suzan with a "z" and adds a Roman numeral II at the end of her signature. You might further notice that at 6 feet 2 inches, she is an exceptionally tall woman, broader of back than most. At which point it could dawn on you--but not necessarily, given a basic reluctance to confront an old taboo--that Suzan St. James is a man.
Call him Nick. His friends do, and for the time being he'd just as soon forgo publication of his family name. At 30, he is one of a handful of performers in Washington earning a living as female impersonators, a k a drag queens. He's been doing it for 10 years now, has a handsomely furnished apartment to show for it, a Toyota of recent vintage bearing the license plate EVITA-1, a starlet's wardrobe and an appreciative following. Within certain circles, he is a name.
"There are so many people who think of you as a star, which you are. A local star," he confides one afternoon in the privacy of his apartment. "They treat you with the same respect and standoffishness they'd treat, well, Lena Horne or any big star. You have no personal life is what it amounts to. You can't step down from that pedestal where they put you."
For the moment, Nick has stepped down. He is wearing shorts and a white Lacoste shirt and sipping a Coke. The eyebrows are graceful, the result of fine plucking, but he hasn't shaved this morning and his upper lip is sprouting a faint mustache. His curly hair, almost shoulder length, is encircled by a headband. The effect is slightly retroactive--1960s hippie in the 1980s. Still, most casual observers would probably call him a good-looking man and not think twice if they passed him in the street.
That's fine with Nick, who has arrived at a certain compartmentalization of his life. "I'm not about to paint my face in the morning to go out in the street. Why should I throw that up to people?" he says. "Oh, some drags do. But I'm not into that. It doesn't help my line of work at all. If people want to see it, let them pay to see it.
"I'm not trying to convince myself I'm a woman, because I'm not," he explains. "It's a business. I enjoy it for what it's worth and it's very worthwhile monetarily. I consider it a legitimate form of theater, which not too many people do. But it's on stage and as far as I'm concerned I'm playing a part. That's why, nine times out of 10, when the show is over I wash my face for the curtain call. I've done my job. It's all an illusion and it's over with."
Drag acts have long been a component of the gay demimonde, but like many aspects of gay culture, are now beginning to turn up in the mainstream of Broadway and Hollywood. Most metropolitan cities in America boast at least one or two bars where they serve as the lure. Washington hasn't hit such giddy heights as San Francisco, where Finocchio's has long enjoyed institutional status as an obligatory tourist attraction. But in the nation's capital, female impersonators turn up regularly at such bars as The Other Side, Bachelor's Mill, The Fraternity House and Piccolo's. It is The Rogue, however, that is generally considered the top of the line, despite its fairly ratty appearance and a location, opposite the intimidating mass of the FBI Building, that is ironic, to say the least.
Every Friday and Saturday, The Rogue has two shows nightly, which together pull an average of 300 to 400 spectators. A large percentage of the audience is gay; some are dyed-in-the-wool aficionados who wouldn't miss a weekend. Pay your $4 at the door. What you see is definitely not what you get.
What you see is a succession of seven or eight performers, wearing a fairly staggering array of flashy, filmy clothing, miming the words to such chart-busters as "Memory," "It's Raining Men" and "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," all the while criss-crossing the stage in a style that alternately suggests they are on the runway at Atlantic City or the dance floor at Studio 54. The crowd--spotted with drag queens hoping to break into the big time or at least out of the audience--behaves with much of the boisterousness farmers bring to the Saturday night tent show. The beer flows. So does the repartee.
The performers bear celebrated and/or exotic names: Donna Summer, Tina Santana, Gwen Alexander, Roxanne Michaels--and they come pretty much in all shapes, from the willowy to the downright weighty. The rotund Ella Fitzgerald, who is nearly as wide as she is tall, which is not quite five feet, can usually be counted upon for comic relief.
Suzan St. James represents the elegant end of the spectrum. Classy. New York as opposed to, say, Nashville. "Suzan is one of the beauties of the show," acknowledges Paul Chris, who used to perform as Lainie Kazan, but once he passed 40 decided it was time "to hang it up." Amiable and soft-spoken, Chris now directs the show at The Rogue, surveys the wardrobe, auditions aspirants to dragdom, quiets easily exacerbated nerves, soothes jealousies and generally acts as "doctor, lawyer and Indian chief" to what he calls "the kids."
"Suzan has a beautiful face, and because of her height she carries her clothes well," he says, reluctant to play favorites. "Of course, all the performers think they're beautiful, otherwise they wouldn't do it. No matter how ugly they are, when they look in that mirror--the magic mirror, we call it--they see themselves as glamorous."
As does, indeed, Nick. "When I first came to D.C., The Rogue was called The Barn and was half the size it is now. It had a tiny matchbox stage. I wasn't performing then, but I'd go in drag to watch the show. People would say to me, 'What are you doing here? You look like you should be at a White House dinner or hostessing a big party for diplomats.' I guess that was the start of the persona. I don't want to appear snobby, which some people think I do. But it's that untouchable character I present. You know, 'Do I dare talk to her or not? She might have an attitude problem.'
"When I first started out performing, I relied exclusively on my face. But that all changes as you get older. I've learned how to dance a little and I've changed my style somewhat. It's no longer just going out there and being glamorous. I've always been a clotheshorse, but I'm not above wearing something from a thrift shop if the number calls for it. My favorite vocalist is Diana Ross. I think every drag queen feels the same way. But I only do songs now that mean something to me, something that relates to my everyday life, something I can pour my heart into."
For a while, Nick poured his heart into a 17-minute cutting from "Evita," wearing a white dress emblazoned with 5,000 rhinestones. But he found that the number didn't really return the investment. "It's hard to take tips from the customers when you're being Eva Peron. Her attitude was that she was better than everyone else. Well, if you carry that through, you're not going to kiss someone for a dollar tip," he explains.
Either you accept the convention or you don't. If you don't, then drag is, to put it mildly, ridiculous. If you do, there can be a raw fascination to the phenomenon, instant Mardi Gras, a Fellini-esque dream world that blurs the lines between men and women. Most of the performers are homosexual men, although a few have opted to go the route of the sex change, which, when completed, will put them out of the business for good. An authentic illusion is the goal, after all, and "convincing" is one of the highest accolades. Some performers can strut themselves into a hot sweat and not raise a single dollar bill in the hall. Others, with a flick of the wrist or a haughty toss of the head, have the bills fluttering in no time. So there is more than a modicum of talent involved, and probably twice as much chutzpah.
Nick reflects a moment. "They tip because they know and like you as an entertainer. Or maybe they like the song you're doing or the costume you're wearing. Or you have those people who just want to get on the edge of the spotlight so everyone can see them, too. They want to sit on the edge of the stage with you or dance with you in the aisle."
He reflects some more. "I guess mostly it's what people tell me after the show: 'It's just not possible that you are a man, a handsome man, and that you can be such a beautiful woman.' Well, maybe to some others, I'm not such a handsome man or such a beautiful woman. It seems I've been at the top, then I go down, then I come back up. But for those who like you, you represent an ideal, what they dream of in a woman."
The explanation somehow stops short, especially when matters are as raucous and raunchy as they can occasionally be at The Rogue. Why, one can well ask, would gay men pay to see a male dress up like a woman, when, chances are, they prefer the company of their own sex? The phenomenon makes even less sense, when, as can happen at The Rogue, a gay woman with close-cropped hair, jeans and work shirt exuberantly tips a man for adopting the very attire and gestures she has abjured.
What is actually being celebrated, although it is unlikely that such awareness runs deep in the hurly-burly of performance, is the masquerade, the necessary lie. In a society that has long demanded a certain amount of duplicity from gays in their daily life, drag is a kind of turning of the tables, a form of comeuppance that makes a temporary mockery of preestablished sex roles. To the extent that gays have long been obliged to wear a mask as a survival mechanism, drag is the ultimate in-joke sprung on a stuffy world that thinks it knows what makes a man a man and a woman a woman.
"Some straight women think it's a put-down of their sex, which it isn't," says Nick. "And the straight men can get awfully up-tight. But it's more like a challenge you're throwing them. What are you seeing? This or that? Illusion or reality? You find out!"
Chris has another explanation. He views drag as a recognition of the feminine element in every man's nature--a realization that the women's movement has also fostered, albeit with different means and to far greater ends. "When you get right down to it, there is really very little difference between men and women, outside of their paraphernalia," he says. "A lot of our audience may not ever want to dress up in drag, but this is their way of getting into it without really doing it. It's a fantasy on both sides of the fence."
While drag may not be an idea whose time has come, there is some evidence to support Chris' contention that this is "the year of drag." "Tootsie" accustomed a nation of movie-goers to the sight of Dustin Hoffman in wig and heels, although that film took pains to give him an economic motivation for the disguise and a luscious girlfriend in the form of Jessica Lange, lest his masculine credentials be impugned.
"Torch Song Trilogy," three interrelated plays about the chaotic life, but astoundingly conventional dreams, of a New York drag queen, made its way from off-off-Broadway anonymity to hit status on Broadway last season. In the process, its author and lead performer, Harvey Fierstein, who began his career as a drag queen, copped two Tony awards--one for best play of the year, the second for outstanding performance by an actor.
Now Fierstein is readying a full-fledged Broadway musical comedy, "La Cage aux Folles," with composer Jerry Herman, who wrote the scores for "Mame" and "Hello Dolly." Adapted from the hit Parisian play, which also spawned two high-grossing movies, "La Cage" revolves around an extravagant female impersonator and his long-suffering lover who run a popular gay club in St. Tropez. With a $5 million investment at stake, the producers are clearly banking on more than a specialized audience when the show opens in New York on Aug. 18. Even Arena Stage will get in on the act next season with "The Importance of Being Earnest." Richard Bauer has already been cast as the imperious Lady Bracknell.
Drag, in fact, has figured in such recent films as "Victor Victoria," "The World According to Garp," "Trenchcoat," "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "Monty Python's Meaning of Life," "Britannia Hospital" and--who would want to claim it?--"Psycho II."
Clearly something's afoot. "Because of the women's movement, I think people are unwilling to sleepwalk through the roles that were handed down to them by their culture," explains Susan Green, an associate professor of social psychology at George Washington University. "They're realizing that there are more ways than one to be male or female. As roles become fuzzier, you get a greater tolerance of a phenomenon like female impersonation. It's a way of playing around with the variety." In short, if a man can wear an apron in the kitchen, he--well, no, he won't necessarily wear a ballgown to the country club. But he's more likely to shrug if someone else does.
There is, historically speaking, a long tradition to draw on. Medea was originally played by a man. So was Juliet. The traditional English pantomime has always called for men in women's roles and the Grand Kabuki of Japan has no actresses in the company, only onegata (female impersonators), some of whom have achieved superstar status. Not to forget, on these shores, Harvard's Hasty Pudding Show.
Drag, as it is practiced in Washington, would be hard pressed to lay claim to such serious credentials, although Paul Chris believes fervently that it is "an art form" like another. It seems to be a profession one winds up in, rather than a calling one aspires to. Many of the performers are would-be actors, who discovered early on that they were never going to be leading men, but could, in fact, become leading ladies. Some come out of the city's social drag clubs, like The Awards Club of Washington, a kind of Elks lodge for men who like to sport women's clothes in their spare time. A few have been hustlers.
The Rogue gives them a kind of legitimacy as performers. Chris says he has a list of 30 applicants just waiting for a defection in the ranks. A top draw gets paid $100 per night. Tips can run $150, although an off night can bring only $30 and a crushed ego. Stage-door Johnnies (or Jeanettes) are not unheard of and some drag queens are occasionally hired to lend novelty or piquancy to private parties.
The product of a broken home, Nick was tossed "like a ball" between his father (in Florida) and his mother (in West Virginia). He's not especially interested in the psychological roots of his trade, figuring "they go so far back into my childhood that they don't seem to have anything to do with what I feel now." But he does recall that his mother always wanted a little girl. "She had two pictures in oval frames in the house. They were pictures of twins, a girl and a boy, she'd bought in a shop," he remembers. "Before I was born, my mother would always stare at the girl, concentrate on it, and say she wanted a child just like that. When I was born, my grandmother said, I came out looking just like the picture of the girl twin."
For a while, his mother even dressed him up in little girl's clothes to take him shopping. "I don't know what her theory was behind that," he says. By the time he was 16 both his parents had remarried. Deciding he didn't want to live with either of his new stepparents, he ran away, got himself a part-time job in a beauty shop, wangled food stamps and managed to finish high school on his own in West Virginia. After graduation, he moved to Norfolk to be a hairdresser and fell into drag, more or less for kicks, via one of that city's many social clubs.
"My roommate had a guest one weekend and I was busy working on a sewing machine, making a dress for this function," Nick recalls. "It was the first one I'd ever gone to and I was getting real enthused about it. The machine was going clack, clack, clack. Finally, this guy stomped out of the bedroom--I don't know, he'd driven all night and was tired--and said, 'What are you doing that's making so much noise?' 'I'm sewing a dress for this function we're going to.' And he said, 'Look, I'm trying to get some sleep. Why don't you go out and buy yourself a dress.' I said, 'Number one, look at my size!' He said, 'They have tall shops. Look, if I give you $100, will you close down that sewing machine so I can get some sleep?' So I said okay. The next day I went out and bought a dress off the rack."
That weekend, he discovered "I got the recognition I wanted, but at the same time with every bit of recognition, I got cut down because of my size." Statuesque was apparently not what Norfolk was looking for--at least that year. So he took advantage of a scholarship to study theater at West Virginia University, acted in some productions, worked backstage on others and stayed 3 1/2 years before calling it quits. "I didn't want to teach theater when I got out, and I realized it's not your education that counts. It's what you can do."
Soon after, he immigrated to Washington, got a job with the C&P Telephone Co. and found himself dabbling increasingly in drag. "In Washington," he remembers, "I wasn't troubled by my height. Most of the queens were bigger." Suzan St. James, pillar of sophistication, had hit her stride.
To maintain his image and a necessary standing, Nick frequents the area's women's shops. Certain of them--Lady Hamilton, Rose Williams, Claire Dratch--have a regular drag clientele and maintain a tolerant, if low-key, attitude toward their male customers. Rose Williams even has a special room where men can try on the gowns that strike their fantasy. If the floor is not swarming with customers, the sales personnel in some of the city's larger department stores will sometimes post a watch outside the dressing room. "Most of them know the people in the business and they know you're not going to look at a price tag," Nick says. Although he says a needle and thread are a drag queen's best friend, Chris estimates that a performer will spend "a good $5,000 a year" on garments.
Nick retreats briefly into his bedroom and returns, holding an evening dress designed of Whiting and Davis glittering metal mesh fabric, "which you don't see too many of." It weighs 75 pounds, and he says it cost him $7,000 to have it designed and made. "It's stainless steel. Nothing will ever happen to it. You clean it with Windex. I had to learn to walk all over again in this dress. It's like a big dog; it walks you! But it will never pay for itself." He shrugs, a businessman contemplating the year-end ledger. His goal for 1983 is to have a dress designed by Bob Mackie, who does clothes for Cher.
Yet for all the applause, the fans, the heady feeling that comes from getting lost in the very illusion you're perpetrating on a suspecting world, Nick sometimes thinks he's engaged in a dead end. On bad nights, he says, he feels like "a trained seal. Dancing for dollars, we call it. Go out there. Do your number. Collect your money." Few drag queens use their own voice in performance and mouthing records does have its artistic limitations. Some nurture the dream of employment as a showgirl in a big Las Vegas revue, but Nick has only gotten as far as the Chester Inn in Atlantic City, where he performs once a week. The female impersonators who have achieved real stardom--Charles Pearce, Jim Bailey, Craig Russell--are those who have trained their voices and can give deadly accurate impressions of, say, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee or Liza Minnelli.
"I can't do this for the rest of my life. I'm not going anywhere," Nick confesses, momentarily dispirited. "I figure five more years at the most and then I'm going to be sick and tired of it."
Last year he tried to make a break. He cut his hair short, grew a mustache and hit Los Angeles to see if he could crash into the movies as a makeup man in the studios. He couldn't. So he came back to Washington "to do what I do best." But at the same time, he's started selling a line of cosmetics--at parties and to friends--as a hedge against the future.
The Margo Channing factor enters in here, and "All About Eve" is a cautionary tale. Just as Bette Davis had to come to grips with Eve Harrington, the younger and prettier actress waiting for a chance to steal the spotlight, the competition in the drag world can be relentless. For some female impersonators, the middle-age alternative--doing "character" roles or comic bits in the show--is unacceptable after having been queen of the runway.
So, for the moment, Nick takes satisfaction in being a professional entertainer, as serious about his hose as a lawyer is about his briefs. "I'm a human being. I don't try to sway anybody. All that matters is whether or not I do my job well," he says.
Unlikely as it seems, there may even be a moral to his story: "When I first started doing drag, my ambition was to have my face on the cover of a magazine like Cosmopolitan with no explanation. Let them read the article to find out. Why not? If not me, let them do a nationwide search for the most beautiful drag. But it has to be someone who looks like a man to begin with--no surgery, no silicone implants in his cheeks, no nothing, just the way God made him. I think that would be a reminder to females all over the U.S."
The moral? "Anybody can be beautiful," he says, "if they take the time to make themselves beautiful."